The tanker drivers’ strike was too short. Here was a genuine opportunity to give people a real taste of what life is going to be like in just a few short years if we continue to do nothing about liquid fuels, and we blew it.
Pity really, because a month or so of poor fuel supplies would have had the public up in arms yelling for both Government and industry to do some of the things they should be doing anyway.
Personally, I’m lucky. Working from a home office means my car use has fallen dramatically, and so has the damage to my wallet.
However, many of my neighbours who commute 50 miles to and from Aberdeen every day were seriously worried that they wouldn’t be able to find enough fuel even though the cost of that fuel has now gone through the roof and is still climbing. I suppose it’s just another demonstration of how hooked we are on the car and how little we have done to really try to reduce that dependency. Our behaviour in relation to car use, other forms of road transport and energy generally is now pretty much lemming-like.
It really concerns me that the effort we’re putting into reduce our energy consumption is so pathetically small. It also concerns me that the number of levers the Government can pull to improve energy consumption are now so few.
An example would be the recent discussion over broadband bandwidth. While private sector-owned telecoms companies in the UK will only invest in higher bandwidth networks if it is good for their shareholders, state-owned or majority state-controlled companies can, and do, consider national strategic issues.
Consequently, Germany will lay fibre-optic cable to give people and businesses 100Mb/sec or better, whereas the UK won’t – at least not everywhere it should.
So the UK can’t consider improved telecoms as a potential energy-saving mechanism because it lost control of, and influence over, that particular essential industry the minute it was privatised.
Of course, the one big lever Government has at its disposal is that of taxation. Allowing the tax on fuel to increase as a means of reducing consumption is one of its main tools. It is, of course, also one of the main things drivers object to.
Whether you are a haulier, a commuter or just a rural pensioner, the impact of the considerably higher fuel price has been hugely financially damaging. Knowing that 70% or so of the price you pay is going straight into the Treasury’s coffers doesn’t help.
The effect, though, is very broad, and we know that higher fuel costs are hitting food prices because transport costs are going up, and that’s without taking into account the impact of diverting some crops into biofuel production.
It’s also going to get worse. Domestic and business electricity and gas costs are predicted by some to be going to rise by perhaps as much as 40% over the coming winter.
Add to this the fact that inflation generally is now running well ahead of the Government’s limit and life for everyone could start – if it hasn’t already – to get seriously difficult very soon.
So how did we get here?
Well, I’m convinced it has a lot to do with the difference between what have become known as the Anglo-Saxon and social market economic models.
The latter is that practised – with some variations on the theme – by countries such as Germany, France and Norway. The former is almost uniquely practised by the UK and the US, although the UK version of the model is somewhat more extreme than that practised in the US.
Which of these models is better can perhaps be best illustrated by the fact that, to my knowledge, neither the German chancellor nor the president of France, or indeed the prime minister of Norway, has recently been to Saudi Arabia asking King Abdullah to invest in their renewable and other energy sectors.
Our PM, Gordon Brown, has, of course, recently done that, although at the time of writing, there hasn’t been any notable response. When he was begging in “Soddi Arrebia” a couple of weeks ago, Broon said that the solutions to the oil crisis lay in strengthening the global free market, ending “short-term market distortions”.
Errr … no. That’s wrong.
In fact, there is now clear evidence that the free market is actually one of the main reasons we are in the mess we’re in. One of the strongest bits of evidence for this is that there is a large difference between field recovery rates achieved by state-owned companies and privately owned companies.
However, looking backwards does not solve today’s problem of high and worsening energy prices.
In fact, it wouldn’t matter that energy was expensive, relatively speaking, if we could use a lot less of it – that is, further reduce energy intensity.
Rather than concentrate – as I’ve tended to in the past – on the idea that all we need to do is develop new forms of renewable energy and all will be well, perhaps we need to turn our efforts as a nation towards consuming considerably less energy than we do now.
Of course, we really need to do both because reducing our energy demand through being more efficient and generally rearranging our lives must leave room for economic growth. So we will still need new fuels and new methods of generating electricity.
The “generally rearranging our lives” bit is, however, just as important as becoming more energy-efficient.
As I said at the start of this column, it’s a pity the tanker drivers’ strike wasn’t longer. We might have achieved a lot more in terms of thinking through how we deal with this high-cost energy era. The problem is, of course, that we’re running out of time to do that.
Nobody expected such a sudden jump in the oil price to nearly $140. Perhaps we need to put some effort in before it leaps to $200.